January 13, 2008 12:25:47 am
Shoppers in American supermarkets may not know, but there is a big chance that the Italian cheese they put in their trolleys will be Indian made.
The story begins in Paonta Sahib, Himachal Pradesh where Man Mohan Malik set up Himalya International Limited in 1995 to export vegetables.
The idea of cheese struck Malik, chairman and managing director of the company, now a major supplier of breaded mushrooms and baby potatoes to the US, many years later at a food exhibition in Germany.
Says Malik: “I saw an Italian stall promoting water-buffalo-milk-cheese as a delicacy. Once I saw that the water buffaloes on the promo pictures were just the same as the ordinary Indian buffaloes (70 per cent of the world’s buffalo population lives in India), I knew what I had to do. I visited almost every mozzarella plant in Italy and absorbed everything I saw… ”
Back in India, Malik started producing mozzarella cheese, but things weren’t so easy because he wasn’t familiar with Italian cheese. That was when Raffaele Cioffi came into the picture.
Malik contacted Cioffi, a fifth-generation cheese-maker from the coast of Sorrento who had been a consultant for cheese producers in Bulgaria and Russia, and invited him to Paonta Sahib.
In the beginning, the American customers complained that the buffalo cheese was contaminated with cow milk. “This is because in India milk is just milk, whether it comes from a buffalo or from a cow,” says Malik.
Malik ordered special equipment from Germany to trace impurities, and asked Cioffi to oversee the entire process from milking the buffaloes to crafting the cheese. He says: “Raffaele and I started to monitor the farmers. We gave them exclusive contracts on the condition that they would not mix the milk. In the 50 farms we have contracted, we have our own staff to explain to the farmers the hygienic procedures in order to meet our US client’s requirements.”
Adds Raffaele: “Now everybody knows that they have to wash their hands before milking or processing the cheese. They learn very quickly. We have worked hard to combine Italian expertise with Indian ingenuity.”
How smooth was the Italian’s move to Himachal? “In the beginning we had to communicate by computer, by means of a translation programme, because we couldn’t speak each other’s language. Our mails were always translated. Now he has taught me English and the business is going great,” says Cioffi. He is not into spices yet and cooks an occasional Italian meal for his colleagues.
Their cheese plant, which went operational in March 2006, has the capacity to produce 68 lakh kg a year of specialty mozzarella cheese. The company, listed on the BSE, has registered a 91.27 per cent growth in net profits to Rs 2.5 crore for the quarter ended September 2007.
In the USA, their collaborators are Winsconsin-based Artignale Italiano and their cheeses are being used by fine dinning restaurants. They will soon be introduced in club stores like Costco and Traders Joe.
The next step is launching Italian frozen cheeses in the Indian market. The company has tied up with Reliance to retail its cheese in India under the brand name Bufalabella. “Within the next three years, we expect a Rs 100-crore turnover from the domestic market. This year we expect Rs 35-crore-plus from our Indian operations. We target the young Indians with high disposable incomes,” says Malik.
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